I walked into Griffith’s Service Station Monday morning as I do almost every day. Generally the mood is light, putting it politely, which is one reason I start the day there. But Monday was different.
Preston Griffith told me about one of our “regulars,” if any of us could actually be described by that title, who had died over the weekend. He was a guy a couple of years younger than me and I was shocked. Then I was told he had actually taken his own life. I couldn’t even really hear it.
It just seemed unbelievable. While we never did things together and probably didn’t know each other truly well in a traditional sense, we’d spent hours over the past several years talking about life and politics, joking and philosophizing. To me he seemed like a guy who had everything in order.
This boyish-looking attorney always stood out to me for an extremely balanced outlook on the law and life. I knew he was married and had two boys — I’d just seen him with them a few weeks ago at the Five Rivers Center during a demonstration on birds of prey. Reading over his obituary Monday night I remembered things he’d told me about his upbringing and education, as well as other small details. We’d gotten together for lunch at Callaghan’s once, but busy schedules didn’t allow more.
Over the course of Monday, my mind found its way back to our morning coffee friend again and again, wondering why. What had been bad enough for him to do that? It made me wish I’d known him better and perhaps could have helped in some way, but I’m sure those far closer to him than I are asking the same questions and feeling the same way. It’s really not my place, and I hope his family will know I only write this out of respect for him and them.
I’ll be away during his funeral and won’t get to pay my respects, but if it makes any difference to anyone, I thought he was a smart, compassionate, funny and a good man, and I know those of us he passed the time with us in the mornings did as well. I still feel the same about him regardless of the way he died or why.
As much as my thoughts turned Monday to this lost friend, they also turned to another who was closer. A fraternity brother of mine at Spring Hill College, Bart was one of the first three people I met when I arrived from Gautier, Miss. in August 1985. We were instantly friends and over the course of our four years together we pledged a fraternity, Alpha Delta Gamma, made an even wider web of friends, traveled together, partied together, pulled some dumb pranks together and generally had a blast.
Bart was the guy who never stopped smiling. He was a Baptist kid from Saraland trying to fit in with all the Catholics, not to mention kids from Miami, Cincinnati, New Jersey and St. Louis, to name a few big cities represented. I had the Catholic part down, but was working on the rest as well.
Along with two other idiots, I was asked not to live on campus any longer after my sophomore year and we got a house nearby. Naturally that became the de facto frat house, so Bart and the other guys were there nearly every day. One thing I could always count on from him that perhaps some of our wealthier, bigger city brothers hadn’t learned, was some respect for the fact we actually lived there (lived is loosely defined). Small town kid ethics.
A couple of houses and lost deposits later, we all eventually graduated. It seems like the kind of thing that after four years you’re damned ready to do. We all started trying to figure out what was next. To me, Bart seemed a little further ahead of some of us.
He had a new car, a job and an apartment on Old Shell Road near USA. I admit being a bit jealous. I was still shacking at mom and dad’s, driving a 1978 VW bug and looking for the big journalism break.
So it was just a couple of months after graduation, Bart, a couple of our female friends who lived locally and I decided to go out for the evening. No double date, just four friends having a few beers. But for once in his life, Bart was in a bad mood. I’d never seen it before.
As we drove to a party — he’d had maybe one beer at an earlier stop — he just plowed his new car into the back of another in the road. It was almost purposeful. In fact, I was warning him way before the wreck.
Instead of getting out of the car and pulling out insurance, etc., Bart just yelled “I can’t handle this!” or something to that effect and took off running. We weren’t sure what he was doing, but I figured it might be better for me to try to keep him out of trouble for leaving the scene of an accident than to chase him. I should have chased him.
The cops came and towed the car, letting me know my buddy ought to turn himself in. We couldn’t find Bart at the party and really didn’t know where he’d gone. Much later we hooked a ride back to his apartment. It was late, but we decided to go in and cheer him up. What we found is still burned in my brain.
He had taken his own life, and it was the last thing any of us would ever have expected. I still don’t understand it at all. His death was devastating for friends and way beyond devastating for his family. I know I still think about him and can only wonder why.
I suppose why is the question as I look at this column. Why write it? What does it mean?
Maybe it’s just remembering two friends linked in no way other than manner of their death. Maybe they’re linked because to me they were both good men and still are.
But also I like to think maybe this is just a reminder to take a closer look at the people we know — well or not so well — from time to time. Who knows what can trigger something like this, or maybe even stop it from happening. In any case, the world is a poorer place because people like these men didn’t or felt they couldn’t reach out for help.
If anyone reading this feels that way, trust me, people do care about you.